Published on Oct 3, 2012
Startling claims that popular kinds of smoke detectors may not protect your family in a fire: TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.
When you buy a smoke detector, you assume it will sound quickly in a fire, giving you plenty of time to escape. But some experts warn that's not always true. In fact, we found that the most common type of smoke detector — the kind you probably have in your house right now — may not go off in time, even when surrounded by thick, toxic smoke, giving little warning to get your family out.
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Amanda Debuty awoke to a house full of smoke, her children trapped upstairs. "As I'm trying to get upstairs, my first thought is the four people that I have upstairs, that they're not scared, that they're safe," she said tearfully.
Tragically, the kids didn't make it. Cause of death: Smoke inhalation. So why didn't they have more warning? After all, Amanda said, the house had working smoke detectors.
"We put fresh batteries in the smoke detectors, we pushed the test button, so I knew they worked," Amanda said. "And then when it was time, they never went off."
Amanda said she had the common type of smoke detector, used in 90 percent of homes: inexpensive, easy-to-find alarms that rely on "ionization" technology. They work well to detect fires with fast flames. But experts say some of the most deadly fires are the smoldering, smoky kind that can fill your home with toxic gases while you sleep.
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In those fires, experts say, ionization alarms don't work well, going off way too late — or not at all. "And that means the individuals could have a fire in their home and never receive a warning," said Dr. Don Russell, an engineering professor at Texas A&M who's run hundreds of tests.
Dr. Russell says that while it is "reasonable" for a consumer to assume that a smoke detector will sound when there's smoke, it's a wrong assumption to make. "It's very scary and that's why people die every year because of this problem." His findings are a bombshell in the industry — that the most popular smoke detectors may not help you in a fire.
An alarming test
We had Dr. Russell set up a test at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. First he placed three ionization detectors, the kind most of us have, in a room with a couch. Next, firefighters set a slow, smoldering fire, using a soldering iron.
Firefighters say every minutes counts to get your family out, so you want the earliest warning possible. But in our test, the room filled up with smoke and the smoke detectors still hadn't gone off after 30 minutes.
Finally, at 36 minutes, one of the three detectors sounded. Minutes later, the other two went off — just as the couch was about to erupt in flames. "It's way too late, it's too dangerous," Dr. Russell said. "You couldn't get out of that room reliably."
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Remember, this was the type of smoke detector most of us have. But there's another technology out there that experts say gives you better warning in those fires. It's called a photoelectric detector, and even government tests show it goes off much sooner in smoky fires.
Dr. Russell set up another test — this time with a photoelectric next to those three ionization detectors.
Seventeen minutes in, with barely any smoke in the room, the photoelectric sounded the alarm. "Photoelectric is telling us you've got a fire, get up, solve the problem, get out of the house," Dr. Russell said.
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"And what are the ionization detectors telling us?" we asked.
Meanwhile, toxic smoke overtook the room. In fact, it took another 21 minutes before any ionization detectors went off.
The seasoned firefighters who observed the test were shocked. "All I could think about is my own family — my own family and my kids trying to get out in that, and if I would've relied on ionization, my family probably wouldn't make it out," said Houston firefighter Brian Lien. "With the photoelectric they would've had plenty of time to get out."
While the leading smoke detector companies do make photoelectric alarms, they still sell most of their products without the technology.
"I believe it's a business decision," Dr. Russell said, citing the fact that photoelectric alarms are more costly to make than ionization alarms.
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